Joe Biden, Imperial President
We’re now three weeks into the Joe Biden presidency, though you’d scarcely know it from the media coverage. This month’s news cycle has mostly focused on things outside the Oval Office—Donald Trump’s pending impeachment trial, the coronavirus, the continued excellence of Tom Brady (sorry, Emile)—so much so that it can feel like Biden’s First 100 Days, Eastertide on the presidential liturgical calendar, are taking place behind a curtain.
Yet behind that curtain, the president has been keeping plenty busy. Newsweek reports:
Joe Biden has signed more executive orders in the first 12 days of his presidency than the combined number issued by his predecessors Donald Trump and Barack Obama for the same point in their tenures.
Since his inauguration, Biden has signed 25 executive orders—taking a raft of action to shape his agenda and to reverse moves taken by Trump which he disagreed with.
Over the same period, Trump signed seven. Obama signed nine in the same timeframe—making 16 between the pair. This comes with Biden having also outstripped the pair in terms of executive actions taken in their first week in power.
These executive orders haven’t just tinkered around the bureaucratic edges. They’ve halted construction on the border wall, ended the Trump travel ban, rejoined the Paris climate agreement, stopped the prohibition on transgendered people in the military, ended the use of private prisons for federal inmates, and slapped tariffs onto aluminum imports from the UAE. Not all of those, by the way, are bad ideas. Many are reversals of Trump’s own executive actions. But taken together, they constitute serious course shifts in policy, changes over which, you would think, Congress would want to have some kind of debate.
And it doesn’t stop with the executive orders. During his first week in office, Biden axed the Keystone XL pipeline project, which will kill thousands of jobs and have consequences for our relationship with Canada. He paused all leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands. On his first day, he trampled precedent by firing the general counsel to the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Robb, who still had 10 months left in his term. That latter move, cheered on by unions who viewed Robb as too friendly to industry, shows what’s driving the Oval Office these days: interest group liberalism. Biden was elected with the help of a number of left-wing constituencies—labor, environmentalists, pro-immigration groups—each of which wants something different out of the federal bag. Now he gets to deliver.
This is not the genial, grinning, consensus-oriented, it’s-five-o’clock-somewhere Biden that some were predicting. This is not Barack Obama’s Republican whisperer or Kamala Harris’ good cop. Trump was often portrayed as a strongman even though much of his management was weak and chaotic; now we have someone who is supposed to be more institutionalist and normal yet who has so far been untrammeled in his exercise of power.
And that’s just it right there. However unprecedented his executive order spree might be, Biden’s imperial approach is normal. Congress for decades now has ceded power to the White House. Gone are the speakers and senators who zealously defended their institution against other branches; in are party hacks who mortgage away tough decisions in favor of getting their side reelected. Regulations and executive orders outnumber bills signed into law. The president is treated as a celebrity, a shaman, a repository for all our hopes and hatreds. This is democracy in America today, under which every four years we get to say yea or nay to a new sun god. The latest one just happens to have a nice smile.